Biometrics and the end of privacy

Those opposing the program argue that the biometric database, well-intended or not, violates fundamental legal and democratic principles of privacy.

July 9, 2013 02:39
3 minute read.
Gideon Sa'ar at the President's residence, January 31, 2013.

Gideon Sa'ar at the President's residence 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

A few years or a decade or so from now, today’s announcement of a pilot program for Israel’s new biometric database may be viewed as the end of privacy as we once knew it.

Through photo, fingerprint and other forms of identification, the database, which at least for a couple of years will be voluntary and not yet mandatory, is designed to accomplish some key goals.

First, it is supposed to help turn the tide in the war against forged and stolen identity cards, which official statistics indicate number in the hundreds of thousands each year.

These forgeries are a crime in themselves, but also facilitate other crimes, say supporters of biometric identification.

Those backing the program say the new database will not only eventually nearly eliminate the ability to forge identity cards, but will also make it more difficult to commit crime in general by tying people to their own identities, including whatever past criminal record they may have.

Supporters also say that the database will create a more efficient and convenient system in which logistical problems such as replacing a lost identity card can be streamlined by merely coming to an office and confirming one’s identity using advanced machinery.

But at what cost? Those opposing the program argue that the biometric database, well-intended or not, violates fundamental legal and democratic principles of privacy and will irrevocably harm the privacy of individuals.

Theft of the currently used identity card may be inconvenient, but a new card can be issued with different numbers and the thief cannot necessarily acquire permanent information about someone to abuse.

Biometrics, like fingerprints, do not just regularly change. If a criminal or rogue state official beats the vaunted security which biometrics is supposed to offer, stealing the ability to use or reproduce a person’s fingerprints could give the abuser power and control over that individual, from withdrawing money from their bank accounts (once biometrics become a way to identify oneself) to using fingerprint data to frame someone for a crime.

In terms of the likelihood of abuse, those opposing say that advancements in technology and in central databases have showed that, despite reassurances to the contrary, human security over the databases is lax and can result in major unintentional lapses; no technology – no matter how advanced – is “hacker-free.”

It is only a matter of time, they argue, before the biometrics in the central database are cracked into and exploited illegally.

They also point out that even where the security of such databases is initially taken seriously, eventually and invariably private companies wanting to profit from the information and public bodies wishing to do their jobs more efficiently begin to break safeguards and abuse the information.

That summarizes their argument that biometrics are not as secure as supporters claim.

But most fundamentally, opponents see something inherently wrong with the state having such basic private information. They view the possession of such information by the government as an inherent stumbling block, arguing that it places too much power that could be abused in the state’s hands.

“Might politicians or infighting bureaucrats might use biometrics against their rivals?” they ask. “Who watches the watchers?” There is also surprising disagreement on what the rest of the world has done with biometrics.

Supporters say Israel will be on the cutting-edge, but many countries have been using biometrics in different forms for some time.

Opponents say that every program similar in scope to Israel’s has eventually been rejected or heavily watered down by democracies. They have expressed worry over the political culture here, whereby only Israelis, as they see it, have expressed readiness to forfeit their privacy rights wholesale.

Objections a few years ago kept the program from going forward on a mandatory basis, but properly targeted and marketed, many admit that the “voluntary” program could absorb enough of the population in a short enough time that its voluntary nature could lose any real meaning.

The High Court of Justice kicked the can down the road not long ago, ordering the state to make certain improvements in the program as requested by human rights groups, but not discussing the fundamental issues.

So with the fundamental legal-democratic debate undecided, the pilot program goes forward.

Now what remains to be seen is whether the program is publicly embraced, whether it reduces crime, and whether and how quickly it is hacked.

If the program is joined voluntarily on a massive scale and hacked just as massively, the philosophical issues at hand could become moot before anyone notices.

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